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  • Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond
  • Miri Rubin
Caroline Walker Bynum . Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. xviii + 402 pp. Ill. $49.95, £32.50 (ISBN-10: 0-8122-3985-7, ISBN-13: 978-0-8122-3985-0).

The work of Caroline Bynum intersects in several interesting ways with the interests of readers of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. In her explorations of the religious cultures of later medieval Europe, especially the ideas and practices conceived by scholars and other believers as they sought to understand their religion based on Incarnation, the human body emerges time and again as an image of the divine and a vehicle for devotional experience. Bynum's Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (1987) studied the life-worlds of women, who used their bodies; the sacrament of Christ's body; and the food they could prepare, consume, or reject in their religious experiences. For many women, especially lay women seeking holiness within cities and within [End Page 122] urban communities, Christ's body—as child and as suffering man—was central to the notion of self and an object of imitation, even through pain and unto illness. The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (1995) was a study of the ways in which the expectation of bodily wholeness, even beauty, in the hereafter reflected classical medical and philosophical understandings of the body and transformed them into a moral system within emergent Christianity and its medieval forms. In Wonderful Blood Bynum develops one of the themes inherent in Holy Feast and Holy Fast: while the bread—the host—of the Eucharist was much discussed and imagined and was considered to be as life-giving as the crucified and then resurrected body, we know less about the meaning of the blood. The scholars who designed the liturgy of the mass were wary about the uses—and possible abuses—of the wine/blood, and modern scholars have readily assumed that this substance was associated with violence and pollution.

In Wonderful Blood, Bynum follows the trails of a number of high-profile debates about blood relics and pilgrimages to sites of "holy blood" in order to make a much broader point. She seeks to emphasize the centrality of blood in late medieval religious life and to identify within visions and devotional experiences the persistent yearning of believers to gain access to the wonderful, saving blood. After an introduction presenting questions and relevant historiography, Part 1 deals with the Northern German cults, with the Wilsnack cult at its heart. Part 2, in which Bynum is at her greatest fluency and ease, introduces fifteenth-century theological debates about Christ's blood and blood relics; Part 3 explores the assumptions and meanings of blood piety; and finally, Part 4 offers a reflection on the theological meaning of the revised understanding of blood offered here and links it to the debates over sacrifice that were so central to Reformed attitudes to the Eucharist.

Although much of the discussion focuses on realms of theology, devotional writings, and religious imagery, Wonderful Blood will be of interest to the Bulletin's readers in that it demonstrates the rich array of meanings attached to the human body in late medieval culture. It demonstrates the devotional dynamic inherent in blood: with Christ, it moved people to compassion but also to guilt (pp. 180-85) for the act of wounding God—of shedding his blood—was not over; it was continuous, as sinners continued to inflict pain. Bynum shows that blood was "alive," that its bright and viscous drops were associated with life, not only—or not primarily—with pain and violence. She suggests that the liveliness of controversies over blood relics in the fifteenth century was linked to the awareness of the physiological properties of blood as the body's lifeline (p. 257). The consideration of sixteenth-century disputes over the meaning of blood will offer useful background to the understanding of medical considerations, too.

Bynum thus argues with care and commitment that in blood, more...


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